When Eileen Ford, head of the country's largest modeling agency, needed help in the overseas modeling business, she called a well-known number in Washington.

She wasn't calling Jerry, Jimmy or Ronnie. She wanted Bob Hormats.

He may not be a household name, but Robert D. Hormats has been at the upper reaches of power since his mid-20s. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford quickly returned his phone calls. Heads of governments send him their regards. He knows almost everybody there is to know in Washington, and they all know him.

But perhaps most unusual, Hormats, 38, has soared unscathed through numerous international economics posts in four administrations -- three Republican and one Democratic. He has been called brillant, very bright, a whiz kid, a savvy wunderkind not ony in performing his various high-level duties, but in his ability to survive in the wilds of Washington.

Last week he was confirmed as assistant secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs, a role meant to toughen the economic arm of Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.

Hormats' is the story of political survival, a real-life example of an old Capitol Hill axiom: "If you want to go along, you have to get along."

"One of his secrets is you won't find anyone in town who can say ill about Bob Hormats," said a fomer colleague. "He's a well-meaning, a kindly person. That's how he survives all these changes in administrations. He never makes waves. He makes no enemies."

Hormats was in such demand after the last election that Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige offered him a position as an undersecretary shortly after he had accepted an offer from Haig."

"It's hard to believe anyone can look that young and be so savvy and such a brilliant negotiator," another former colleague said.

However, many of his current and fomer associates find it difficult to explain specifically what Hormats had done. He talks to all sides on an issue and advises his bosses, usually cabinet-level officials. (His special talent is behind-the-scenes work, negotiating, bringing together two opposite sides to a consensus.) He is sent to iron out differences in economic policy between the United States and foreign nations. dHe is the only American official to have attended actively all of the international economic summits since the Ford administration. He has had a hand in most major international trade decisons in the past decade from the Multilateral Trade Negotiations to the Japanese auto-import discussions.

He was a key participant in the rescue of the British pound in 1974, and had headed several international and interagency trade committees and delegations, concentrated on stregthening U.S.-Japanese and U.S.-European relationships and recently averted a trade war over steel. He also helped modify the "Nixon shocks" after President Nixon imposed a surcharge on imports and suspended conversion of the dollar into gold and other reserve assets.

For a decade he has been a high scorer on the government's international trade team, but he's never been a star.

Hormats already has advised Haig on the Soviet grain embargo, the crisis in Poland and the Japanese auto import issue.

Was Haig really trying to take the lead in auto discussions away from U.S. Trade Representative Bill Brock and was it Hormats' idea?

"I think there was what I would call a communications problem," Hormats said in an interview in his State Department office. "What Secretary Haig really wanted to do was present the issue to [Foreign Minister Masayoshi] Ito, put it in broad context. He didn't want to be the negotiator.He wanted Brock to step in."

When asked to name some of Hormats' weak points, attorney and former deputy U.S. trade representative Alan Wolff paused and said, "That takes some thought. I don't know. He's a very bright and able guy. There are no glaring flaws that come to mind."

Wolff did come up with something. He said some people have told him Hormats gives the impression that he's on their side when he's talking with them, even when he's not. "He's a good listener . . . and that could give that impression," Wolff said.

"He's very nice and he listens to small-business people. Modeling is small business," said Eileen Ford, who met Hormats while working on a committee to help small businesses work abroad." "He was always in touch with me and always sensitive to the needs of our business. It was nice to know there was someone in that great bureaucracy who cared." Hormats was unable to solve Ford's problem in the end, "But it wasn't for lack of trying," she said.

Hormats seems to have cruised from scholastic honors to powerful positions, gliding almost effortlessly since his middle-class upbringing in Baltimore, noted one observer. He has climbed the Himalayas and descended the depths of archaeological digs in Tanzania with the Leakeys. He has built barns in Kenya [as part of a private aid program while in college] and constructed political bridges around the world.

He went from adviser to Henry Kissinger at the National Security council at age 26 to deputy assistant secretary of State, to deputy special trade representative to his present position without falling on his face or facing grave opposition.

That is until Sen. Jess Helms (R-N.C.) placed on hold the confirmation of several state department nominees, including Hormats.

"Mr. Hormats, who served the Carter administration as deputy trade representative, was unknown to me," Helms wrote to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.). "My staff has met with Mr. Hormats and found him forthcoming in his understanding of the needs and concerns of American businessmen faced with unfair foreign competition."

"I was never too concerned about it," Hormats said. "I just accepted it as part of the process." Hormats said he didn't feel Helms wanted to prevent his confirmation. "There's some truth to the fact that he didn't know me very well."

"I'm basically nonpartisan or bipartisan," Hormats said. "My theory about my job is [I have a] responsibility to provide sound advice and the sense of political considerations in a particular issue. International policy has basically been bipartisan.It is not a partisan political issue" like welfare or domestic economic policy. "You're not quite exposed to partisan political considerations."

Hormats looks 10 years his junior. He is unwrinkled and shows no gray hair. He is more likely to be seen wearing thick tweed or herringbone suits as opposed to the uniform Washington pinstripe, and often pads around the office in his stocking feet.

Hormats was born April 13, 1943, the first of two children of a civilian chemical engineer for the U.S. Arny. He attended Baltimore City College High School, where he was an A student in subjects he liked, such as English and math, he said. He didn't like Latin. "It's a very interesting language and I can still read it,' he said, regarding Latin as an aid to learning Romance languages.

He received a B.A degree from Tufts University in 1965, later earning a M.A., M.A.L.D. and PhD. from the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy at Tufts.

While at Tufts he worked in Africa and interned two summers at the State Department's Africa bureau in Washington and in Bonn. During graduate school he decided he might like to work for the State Department, he said.

It was during lunch at Tufts one day that schoolmates told Hormats about a job offer on the bulletin board, an opportunity to work for Henry Kissinger at the National Security Council. Hormats said he thought about it, applied and got the job at age 26.

Hormats and Haig became acquainted at the NSC. Hormats was adviser first to C. Fred Bergsten, then Kissinger, Gen. Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Hormats, who one observer said possess an inordinate amount of luck, was off on a fellowship at the Brookings Institution during the height of the Watergate scandal.

One of Hormats' major interests is energy. He said he would like to try to work out understandings with other major energy importing countries on preventing disruptions of oil supplies.

On the Third World: "I feel strongly about U.S. support for development in the Third World. It is in the U.S. interest from the political area to support development."

Communism: Hormats said he hasn't developed a "detailed knowledge of that.

But there are cases where the Soviets have been the source of instability and disruption. But some disruptions are domestic and outside forces are secondary.

Hormats said he isn't sure what his next step will be. He has thought about public office. "But I haven't thought that deeply about it." He thinks about someday runnig for the U.S. Senate or House. "It's always something I keep in the back of my mind."